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Summer Reads 2024: Princeton professors share what's on their lists

Jamie Saxon, Office of Communications | Tue Jul 2, 2024

Six Princeton professors talk about beloved books on their shelves and share what’s on their summer reading lists from scholarly nonfiction to crime fiction, with history, poetry, rom-com, artificial intelligence, magic, democracy, philosophy and more in the mix.

Some book choices reflect our contributors’ research and teaching. Others illuminate personal interests and current issues in the headlines. 

Tina Campt

Campt is the Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities, and professor of art & archaeology and visual arts at the Lewis Center for the Arts

Tina Campt

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf. 

"The Sweet Flypaper of Life," photographs by Roy DeCarava, text by Langston Hughes.

This exquisite little book (which when opened, nestles perfectly in the palm of your hands) is a volume I teach regularly, but it’s also an endless source of inspiration and a beacon of hope. DeCarava’s intimate black-and-white photos of Harlem street and domestic life allow us to “feel" Black sociality through a complex play of darkness, shadow and light which resonates with deep affective power. 

His work is a prime example of a concept that lies at the heart of my research: "visual frequency" — a term that describes imagery that registers beyond what we see by soliciting powerful emotional responses. It captures ineffable qualities of Black sociality and its irrepressible strivings even in the face of the most challenging circumstances.

What’s on your summer reading list? 

As I prepare to go on sabbatical, I have the privilege of allowing my personal and professional booklists to merge as I now begin to embrace the delight of extended unstructured reading time — beginning with two books of poetry:

"To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness" by Robin Coste Lew takes us on a lyrical journey through the author’s family photographs and the confluence of insights, responses and emotions that emerge through our encounter with the memories and relations that photographs conjure.

"Bluest Nude" by Ama Codjoe is a collection of verses which enact through poetry what I aspire to do in prose. Like me, she "writes tothe artwork of Black artists including Betye Saar, Malick Sidibé, Mickalene Thomas, Carrie Mae Weems, and my Princeton colleague in visual arts Deana Lawson, among others.

Rounding out the top three titles on my work/pleasure reading list is "Devotion," the first catalog/collection of essays on and conversations with the genre-defying filmmaker Garrett Bradley. With essays and interviews by an exceptional range of artists, critics, curators and scholars including Huey Copeland, Tyler Mitchell, Joy James, Doreen St. Felix, Legacy Russell, Kevin Quashie, Arthur Jafa and Linda Goode Bryant, quite frankly, I cannot wait!

Tom Griffiths

Tom Griffiths 

Griffiths is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Information Technology, Consciousness, and Culture of Psychology and Computer Science.

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf. 

I am going to break the rules a little bit to include two books that I highly recommend for readers interested in learning more about artificial intelligence:

"The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values" by Brian Christian. One of the biggest questions raised by AI is how to create AI systems that are aligned with human values. This book takes on that question and provides a great introduction to some of the ideas behind modern AI. Brian was my co-author on "Algorithms to Live By" (2016), and I loved this new book of his.

"The Worlds I See: Curiosity, Exploration, and Discovery at the Dawn of AI" by Fei-Fei Li, a 1999 alumna and former faculty member at Princeton, where she did some of the fundamental research that launched the AI revolution. This book elegantly interweaves her story with insights about how AI works and is this year's Pre-Read for the incoming Class of 2028.

What’s on your summer reading list? 

Most of the non-fiction reading I do is about finding connections between topics in AI and cognitive science and ideas in other fields. Two books I’m excited to read are:

  • "Games: Agency as Art" by C. Thi Nguyen. Games are objects that reveal a lot about human cognition — designing a game partly involves reverse-engineering how people think about the world and what they find rewarding. This book takes a unique perspective on games and game design that I am hoping will inform some new projects in my lab.
  • "Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa" by my Princeton colleague Anthony Grafton, the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. This book is about how early practitioners of magic interpreted aspects of what we would later recognize as cognitive science through a supernatural lens. What we believe about magic provides a very pure measure of how human minds interpret their environment. I have a few papers that look at this idea in detail.

I also read a lot of fiction — about a book a week. Here are three novels I’m looking forward to reading this summer:

  • "The Familiar" by Leigh Bardugo explores the interpretation of magic and miracles in post-Inquisition Spain (a topic of particular interest as my wife has Sephardic heritage).
  • "Dawn" by Octavia E. Butler is a science fiction story about a survivor rescued from an extinction event by aliens and tasked with recreating human society. Alignment problems abound.
  • "Empires" by Nick Earls unfolds over three centuries and three continents. I grew up in Australia and read books by Australians when I get homesick — Earls is one of my favorite Australian authors.

Jacob Nebel

Jacob Nebel

Nebel is professor of philosophy and a 2013 Princeton graduate.

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf. 

My favorite philosophy book is "Reasons and Persons" by Derek Parfit. It’s just breathtaking in scope, wrestling with questions about the rationality of morality and self-interest, our attitudes to time, the nature and importance of personal identity, and our obligations to future generations. The headline, Tibetan monks found chanting text by Oxford philosopher, refers to this book.

Parfit died unexpectedly in 2017. He, his work, and his mentorship (he supervised my BPhil thesis at Oxford) meant a great deal to me. A wonderful biography — “Parfit by David Edmonds — was published last year by Princeton University Press.

What’s on your summer reading list? 

Some philosophy books:

  • "The Bounds of Possibility: Puzzles of Modal Variation" by Cian Dorr, a 2002 Princeton graduate alumnus, John Hawthorne and Juhani Yli-Vakkuri, is about the limits of how different things could have been. For example, Nassau Hall could have been smaller than it actually is, but it couldn’t have been as small as my pinky toe. This sort of judgment gives rise to various puzzles, which are the topic of this book.
  • "Bias: A Philosophical Study." What is it for someone or something to be biased? Why do we tend to attribute bias to people who disagree with us, and to think that we ourselves are less biased than others? This book, by my Princeton colleague (and senior thesis adviser) Thomas Kelly, professor of philosophy, is about questions like these concerning the nature and normative significance of bias.
  • "The Rules of Rescue: Cost, Distance and Effective Altruism" by Theron Pummer is about whether and in what ways our duties to aid are sensitive to the number of people we could help, their distance from or connections to us, the cumulative sacrifice we make over our lifetimes, and how we want our own lives to go.

Some non-philosophy books:

  • "The MANIAC" by Benjamín Labatut is a fictionalized biography of John von Neumann (among other things). 
  • "City in Ruins" by Don Winslow is the conclusion to a crime trilogy I’ve enjoyed so far. 
  • "Glorious Exploits" by Ferdia Lennon is a comedy set in Sicily during the Peloponnesian War.
  • "Funny Story" by Emily Henry, queen of the millennial meet-cute.
  • "Everyone Poops" by Tarō Gomi (originally published in Japanese). I have a 2-year-old son, and this summer is potty-training season.

Christy Wampole

Christy Wampole

Wampole is professor of French and Italian.

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf. 

"Perspectives on Our Age: Jacques Ellul Speaks on His Life and Work." Recently, I’ve taken an interest in technophobia and technoskepticism and was happy to find some of my intuitions confirmed in the writings of the French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912-1994). 

Although he died before the Internet and cellphones had introduced now familiar forms of distraction, depression and anxiety, Ellul wrote presciently about the many ways technology would change every aspect of culture, including daily life, art, literature and philosophy. The humanity of his writing inspires me to bring an analog spirit to my writing and teaching.

What’s on your summer reading list? 

I am in the middle of a book project on the Zeitgeist or the spirit of the times, an idea that emerged in response to the French Revolution.

Back then, several European thinkers — mostly Germans — tried to figure out why the people seemed suddenly moved by some invisible force to rise up against monarchy, and one of the more consistent explanations was that a ghostly figure, the spirit of the age, had exerted its influence on them.

This project has filled my shelves with an odd mix of books: writings on ghosts, revolution, atmospheres, Napoleon, vibes, pop culture, crowds, Romanticism, journalism, public opinion polls, generations. Still left to read over the summer are:

  • "The Unnamable Present" by Roberto Calasso ("L'innominabile attuale" in Italian), part of a series about the secular West in the 20th century.
  • "The Mood of the World" by Heinz Bude, originally published in German under the title "Das Gefühl der Welt," seeks to understand contemporary uneasiness in the realms of politics, finance, social life and technology. 
  • "Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture" by Douglas Coupland, a book about and for my generation, which, perhaps because of my default Gen-X slacker attitude, I never actually read. 
  • And many more books with titles that refer in some way to the spirit of the times: "Surfing the Zeitgeist" by Gilbert Adair, "The Spirit of the Age" by William Hazlitt, the two-volume "L’Esprit du temps" by Edgar Morin and "Geist der Zeit" by Ernst Moritz Arndt, published in 1806.

I will also do a deep dive into the Mass-Observation Archive, a social research project started in 1937 using questionnaires, diaries, and various observers who would record the minutiae of daily life. Some of the materials collected have been anthologized into volumes such as “Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937-1949.”

Anna Yu Wang

Anna Yu Wang

Yu Wang is assistant professor of music.

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf. 

"Representing African Music: Postcolonial Notes, Queries, Positions" by Kofi Agawu. With chapter titles like “Polymeter, Additive Rhythm, and Othering Enduring Myths,” this book is chock full of provocations on the ethics of researching African music (in particular) and music beyond the Western canon (in general). It models daring question-asking, compelling argumentation, and candor. My thinking continues to be challenged, in the best of ways, by this book.

What’s on your summer reading list? 

First, let me recommend some mind-opening reads:

  • "Record of a Spaceborn Few" by Becky Chambers, part of the exquisite “Wayfarers” series, winner of the Hugo Award for Best Series in science fiction or fantasy. Set in an outer space human colony, this book is a sensitive and hope-filled exploration of death, change, immigration, otherness and the makeup of social institutions.
  • "Private Equity" by Carrie Sun. This memoir penned by the former assistant of a major hedge fund CEO explores mental hardship, Asian-American identity and workplace culture.
  • "The Sea Around Us" by Rachel Carson. This book offers a beautiful account of the history and lifeforms of the earth’s ocean. It is written in a vivid, transporting prose that I aspire towards in my own writing.

These more scholarly books on my summer reading (and rereading) list engage the ethics and politics of difference-making and relation-seeking, and the way these opposing tendencies leave their mark on aesthetic experience.

  • "Ornamentalism" by Anne Anlin Cheng, professor of English at Princeton. This book studies how the ornament, cast as the site of the oriental, feminine and marginalized, became leveraged as the foil for “modernity.”
  • "Interspecies Communication: Sound and Music Beyond Humanity" by my Princeton colleague Gavin Steingo, professor of music, surveys the motivations behind human attempts at animal and alien communication in the 20th century. It addresses charged themes like desire, love and the imagination of the human/nonhuman divide.
  • "Sound Relations: Native Ways of Doing Music History in Alaska" by Jessica Bissett Perea. This study of Indigenous musicking in Alaska shows how musical acts and positionalities are formed from a dense network of incommensurable truths.
  • "Chinatown Opera in North America" by Nancy Yunhwa Rao. This book historicizes the significance of Cantonese opera among the first Chinese immigrants in Canada and the U.S., stretching the limits of how American music is conventionally defined.

Leonard Wantchekon

Leonard Wantchekon

Wantchekon is the James Madison Professor of Political Economy and professor of politics and international affairs.

Tell us about a particular book on your shelf. 

My favorite book is "Ambiguous Adventure" by Cheick Hamidou Kane, a classic of African literature. It is the captivating story of the Diallobe community facing the challenge of preserving their cultural identity in the face educational opportunities brought by the French colonial rule. The central character, Samba Diallo, becomes a brilliant college student in France, while remaining deeply rooted in his local traditions. The question is how to remain true to the “ultimate values” of the past while embracing modern education.

What’s on your summer reading list? 

I am re-reading two novels related to my work:

  • "Homegoing" is a historical fiction novel by Yaa Gyasi. It follows the family history of a woman from the Asante ethnic group in Ghana during the transatlantic slave trade. Her two daughters are separated by life circumstances — one marries a British governor running the slave trade and the other is an enslaved captive of the same man. The book covers the lives of their descendants over several generations. It parallels my research on the intergenerational trauma of the transatlantic slave trade and on the social mobility of students from the first colonial schools in Benin, my home country, and Nigeria.
  • Burger’s Daughter” is a political and historical novel by the Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer. It covers the emergence of a group of white political activists working alongside the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela to end the Apartheid regime. The novel is a direct and vivid account of the struggle against Apartheid in the 1970s, which inspired my own involvement in the prodemocracy movement in Benin in the early '80s, as well as my 2012 autobiography, “Rêver à contre-courant."

Also on my list is "Purple Hibiscus" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, on the lives of two siblings from an upper-class family in Eastern Nigeria during the Civil War. It is a fascinating account of a wealthy Nigerian authoritarian family, the emotional turmoil of the children and the powerful bonds that emerge from it.

And three books to read ahead of the 2024 presidential election:

  • The most interesting read is “Politics Is for Power: How to Move Beyond Political Hobbyism, Take Action and Make Real Change” by Eitan Hersh. The book describes the way contemporary American politics has become more of a hobby, an entertainment or a spectator sport, with strong emotional attachments to candidates and dinner table arguments triggered by sound bites from campaign ads or provocative social media posts by politicians. It calls for a shift in political culture with more constructive dialogue between informed citizens as well as effective collective action for meaningful social change. It is also a call for us to be more involved in local politics.
  • A great complementary reading is “Reclaiming Participatory Governance: Social Movements and the Reinvention of Democratic Innovation,” a collection of essays by Adrian Bua and Sonia Bussu. The book explores the challenges of bottom-up democracy, in which citizens play a prominent role in policy formulation and implementation. Participatory governance requires electoral campaigns that are deliberative, with more town hall meeting-style interactions between candidates and voters, as opposed to campaign ads and rallies. This is consistent with evidence from my research on deliberative political communication, indicating that these strategies promote ethical voting and informed citizenry.  
  • For an in-depth history of town meetings in American democracy, I would suggest Frank M. Bryan’s “Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works.” The bottom line is that, “Citizens are not born, they are raised.” In 19th-century New England, town halls were widely perceived as training grounds for citizenship.